Bruins Can’t Solve Holtby; Series Heads to Boston Tied

Braden Holtby saved 44 of 45 shots in Thursday's Game 4 of the Bruins-Capitals playoff series, played at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

For the Boston Bruins to beat the Washington Capitals, at some point they’ll need to beat Braden Holtby. The rookie goalie has averaged more than 35 saves per night in his first four playoff games, including a dominating 44-save night Thursday that powered the Capitals to a 2-1 victory at the Verizon Center, evening the series at 2-2.

And with every stick-side deflection, glove-side save or body-block, Holtby’s confidence just climbs higher.

A confident Holtby means trouble for the Bruins, no matter how many more shots they take.

Holtby Shuts Out Off-Target Bruins in Second and Third

The Bruins out-shot the Capitals in every period Thursday, posting double-digit advantages in the first and third. The Bruins fired from the crease, the circles and the blue line. They tried redirects, wrap-arounds and rebounds. But no matter what they tried, Holtby and the Capitals defense blanked the Bruins over the final two periods.

Tyler Seguin nearly scored four minutes into the second on a 2-on-1, but Holtby skated out of the goal and stonewalled him. Brad Marchand had a similar 3-on-2 opportunity soon after, but again the Bruins came up empty. And Seguin corralled a deflection later in the second but again couldn’t settle the puck for a shot.

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Two-Goal Third Gives Bruins First Winning Streak Since January

Johnny Boychuk takes a shot in the third period of Thursday's game against the Buffalo Sabres at TD Garden. The Bruins won, 3-1. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

The Boston Bruins have rarely played “complete” hockey over the last two months, alternating losses with frustrating, indecisive victories. And on those few occasions when they submitted a complete game, they never followed it with a second.

No more.

The Bruins capitalized on two goals in the final period Thursday night at TD Garden, beating the Buffalo Sabres, 3-1. The Bruins have now won two in a row for the first time since Jan. 10 and 12.

Boychuk, Bruins Finish Game in Style

The Bruins came out of the second intermission playing confident, aggressive hockey. They dominated the opening two minutes of the third, firing five times at Sabres goalie Jhonas Enroth and forcing him to make two saves. Enroth survived the early scare, but his team could do little to give him any breathing room, with the Bruins defense’s back-pressure limiting the speedy Sabres’ scoring opportunities and man-advantages.

The Bruins played an incredibly physical game, out-hitting the Sabres 30-23, including 12-7 in the third. The biggest hit came from Johnny Boychuk, who midway through the period leveled left winger Thomas Vanek with a completely clean, open-ice check just inside the Sabres’ zone.

As a reward for his Garden-energizing hit, Boychuk scored what proved to be the game-winning goal with just over seven minutes left in the game. Jordan Caron began the sequence with a takeaway in the Sabres’ zone, forcing defenseman Jordan Leopold to dive to block Caron’s shot.

Leopold blocked the puck with his stick, but the puck slid to an awaiting Boychuk in the right circle. Boychuk ripped a slapshot just under the crossbar for the 2-1 lead. Caron got the assist on Boychuck’s first goal since early December.

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Thomas Relieves Injured Rask, Falters Against Islanders

Tuukka Rask gets carried off the ice by Greg Zanon and Joe Corvo during the second period of Saturday's home game against the New York Islanders. (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Boston Bruins have needed no one’s help to play lazy, lackadaisical, .500 hockey since mid-January. But Saturday afternoon against the New York Islanders, they got a little help from the referees.

A possibly uncalled icing penalty late in the third led to a tie-breaking goal by center John Tavares, and Evgeni Nabokov saved 32 of 34 shots to secure a 3-2 victory over the Bruins at the TD Garden. Tuukka Rask left midway through the second with an undisclosed injury.

The Bruins now lead the Ottawa Senators in the Northeast Division by just three points with 19 games left, including one against the Senators.

Bruins Lose Focus Late in Third

The Bruins appeared headed for at least a point midway through the third, having tied the game 2-2 on a typically dazzling goal by Tyler Seguin. David Krejci won a faceoff in his zone, then fed it to Zdeno Chara. Chara bounced a pass to Seguin off the boards in the neutral zone, and Seguin eluded both defenseman Andrew MacDonald and Nabokov to tie the game at 7:29.

But with about five minutes left in the game, Johnny Boychuk in his first game back post-concussion rocketed the puck from behind the Bruins’ goal line the entire length of the ice. Both Seguin and Milan Lucic sprinted to try to beat the icing call, but no referee signaled that either had touched the puck.

Without an indication from the referee, the Bruins expected an icing call when left winger Matt Moulson touched the puck in his own zone. But no call occurred, and the confused Bruins allowed Moulson a free pass through the neutral zone and into their right circle. Moulson fired on goal, and Tavares tipped it in at 4:29 for a 3-2 lead.

Continue reading Thomas Relieves Injured Rask, Falters Against Islanders

Sabres Crush Both Rask and Thomas in Buffalo

Jason Pominville (right) sweeps the puck past Tuukka Rask for the Sabres' second goal of Wednesday's game at First Niagara Center in Buffalo. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

The Buffalo Sabres played Wednesday’s game as a team desperately needing wins to keep its playoff hopes alive should: intelligent but physical, controlled but aggressive.

The Boston Bruins played as a team with a chance at the Eastern Conference’s top spot should not: lazy, disorganized, brainless.

Who do you think won?

The Sabres scored twice in each period Wednesday, cruising to a 6-0 blowout victory over the Bruins in Buffalo.

Poor Defense Rattles Rask

It was clear just minutes into the game that Tuukka Rask hadn’t brought his A-game to First Niagara Center. When Christian Ehrhoff fired from the blue line following a d-to-d pass from Tyler Myers, Rask misjudged the puck once it glanced off Gregory Campell, giving the Sabres a 1-0 lead on just their second shot of the game.

The Sabres went up 2-0 with just over five minutes left in the first when center Ville Leino made a nifty spin in the Bruins’ left circle, avoiding the defense and centering the puck to Jason Pominville. Pominville quickly chipped it in, with defenseman Mike Weber also assisting.

Clearly rattled by two goals that were as much his defense’s fault as his own, Rask lasted just 1:52 into the second period, when Andrej Sekera found Tyler Ennis in the neutral zone. Ennis changed direction twice in the Bruins’ zone, eluding multiple defenders before ricocheting a backhand off the goalpost and in for the 3-0 lead.

Rask exited the game following Ennis’ goal, having given up three goals in just 10 shots. It was his worst outing since lasting just one period and giving up three goals to the same Sabres on Jan. 1, 2010.

Continue reading Sabres Crush Both Rask and Thomas in Buffalo

Tim Thomas Exercises Free-Speech Right, Declines White House Ceremony

The President honored the 2011 Stanley Cup Champion Bruins Monday at the White House. Citing political differences, Tim Thomas did not attend. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama congratulated the Boston Bruins Monday for their 2011 Stanley Cup championship. Citing differences of opinion, Boston Globe hockey writer Fluto Shinzawa reported, Tim Thomas chose not to attend.

Good for Thomas.

Thomas Stays True to America and Self

Appearing at the White House, being photographed with the President and handing him an embossed Bruins jersey would make Thomas look aligned with the President. A fake alliance or not, Thomas wanted to avoid such an appearance because he sees his political relationship to the President differently. That shows both political conviction and a savvy understanding of the modern media landscape.

What would have been the alternatives? Had Thomas gone to the White House and then voiced his opposition to the President, he’d have been portrayed as hypocritical. “How can you shake hands with the President Monday and bash him Tuesday?” the media would ask. No answer Thomas could give would make him look good, so why bother giving the press the question at all? The issue still comes up by declining the invite, but at least the press can only crucify him for his opinions, not his actions.

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Bruins’ Fourth Line Carries Team Past Devils

Gregory Campbell takes the shot against New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur during Thursday's game at the Prudential Center in Newark. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Good things come to those who wait. The Boston Bruins waited five games to get back Brad Marchand. They waited two games to get back Rich Peverley. And they waited 63 minutes Thursday night before finally solving the New Jersey Devils’ stout defense and even more stout goalie, Martin Brodeur.

Once the waiting period ended, however, the Bruins’ offense kicked it into overdrive, scoring twice in 35 seconds to help the Bruins to a 4-1 road victory over the Devils. The fourth line combination of Daniel Paille, Shawn Thornton and Gregory Campbell combined for a goal and four assists during the Bruins’ four-goal third period.

Bruins’ Offense Dominates Third

The Bruins played lazy, sluggish hockey for the first 40 minutes of Thursday’s game, turning the puck over, losing one-on-one battles along the boards, and missing their meager 12 shots at Brodeur.

Perhaps heartened by just a 1-0 deficit entering the third period, the Bruins came out on fire, putting three shots on goal in the opening minutes while displaying far superior puck-management.

The simultaneously more disciplined and intense offense paid off at 3:01, when Thornton sent a crossing pass towards Andrew Ference just behind the Devils’ left circle. Ference let the puck bounce off the boards, then rocketed a slapshot just under the top-right corner of the goal to tie the game 1-1. Campbell also earned an assist on the goal.

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Boston Sports Review, 2011 Edition

Tim Thomas hoisting the Stanley Cup in triumph was easily the highlight of 2011 for Boston sports. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

Humankind has always felt a deep need to chart the passage of time.

I’m a human.

That’s as much of a transition as you’re getting into my third annual review of the previous year in Boston sports, which in 2011 saw three teams win their division and one win it all.

Boston Bruins

• 2010-11 Final record: 46-25-11, Northeast Division Champions; defeated Vancouver Canucks in 2011 Stanley Cup, 4-3

The Bruins ended a 39-year championship drought on the back of Tim Thomas, who submitted perhaps the greatest single season in NHL goalie history. He set an NHL record for best save percentage, then won his second Vezina Trophy (top goaltender in the league), the Conn Smythe Trophy (MVP of the playoffs) and, oh yeah, the Stanley Cap.

Before they could win the Stanley Cup, the Bruins would submit three spectacularly entertaining playoff series. They beat the Canadiens in seven games in the quarterfinals, overcoming an 0-2 deficit and winning three games in single or double overtime. They next swept the Flyers, flushing the bitter taste of the previous season’s blown three-game lead against them. Finally, the Bruins played a hard-fought, evenly matched series with the Lightning that culminated in a penalty-free, 1-0 victory in Game 7 at the TD Garden.

The Bruins’ blue-collar hockey succeeding against the much flashier Canucks validated Boston’s long-suffering Bruins fans. The 2011 NHL playoffs so entertained me that I can finally count myself among them.

Continue reading Boston Sports Review, 2011 Edition

Bruins Overcome Two-Goal Deficit Against Sabres, Win Tenth Straight in Shootout

Benoit Pouliot scores the game-winning shootout goal of Wednesday's game in Buffalo. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Buffalo Sabres start fights. The Boston Bruins finish them.

And they win games.

Zdeno Chara‘s power play goal in the third period of Wednesday’s game in Buffalo completed a two-goal comeback, and Benoit Pouliot scored in the fifth round of the shootout to beat the Sabres, 4-3.

The Bruins have now won 10 games in a row and lead the Northeast division. They need just two points to catch the conference-leading Pittsburgh Penguins.

Third Period Remains Bruins’ Ally

The Bruins entered Wednesday’s game as the highest-scoring third-period team in the NHL. And down 3-2 entering the third, they played like it, pounding the puck repeatedly at Sabre goalie Jhonas Enroth.

The Bruins’ offensive onslaught earned them a power play at 2:11, when center Derek Roy hooked Rich Peverley. Despite two shorthanded Buffalo shots to start the power play, Boston eventually worked the puck back towards Enroth.

Chara fired off a wristshot from 58 feet which Enroth deflected, but the puck came to David Krejci in the slot. Krejci opted not to shoot, instead passing to Milan Lucic just to the right of the goal post.

Lucic then sent the puck back to Chara at the blue line, and Chara fired off a powerful slapshot that sailed past Enroth to tie the game 3-3 at 3:35.

Continue reading Bruins Overcome Two-Goal Deficit Against Sabres, Win Tenth Straight in Shootout

Strong Power Play Helps Bruins Dominate Maple Leafs

Chris Kelly backhands a shot before getting the rebound past goalie Jonas Gustavsson for a goal in the first period of Thursday's game at the TD Garden. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

When Shawn Thornton threw down with Toronto Maple Leaf right winger Colton Orr early in the Bruins’ game Thursday night at the TD Garden, he sent a clear message: No more listless hockey. We’re fighting back.

And boy, did they ever.

Four different Bruins posted three-point games, and two first-period power play goals kick-started a high-energy, high-intensity 6-2 Bruins victory over the Maple Leafs.

The Bruins’ Powerful Power Play

Despite aggressive offensive play from the Bruins in the game’s opening minutes, the Leafs struck first when center Tyler Bozak found David Steckel, who fired a slapshot past Tim Thomas with 7:29 gone in the first. The Leafs went up 1-0, and once again it looked like the dejected Bruins would have to play from behind.

This time, however, Boston only had to play from behind for three minutes. Matt Frattin took out Benoit Pouliot, and halfway through the resulting power play David Krejci won a faceoff in Toronto’s zone. Krejci fed it back to Andrew Ference, who crossed to Zdeno Chara inside the blue line. Chara fired a bullet at Leafs goalie Jonas Gustavsson, who blocked the shot, but the puck bounced in front of the goal. Nathan Horton collected the rebound and quickly put it in the net to tie the game with just over 10 minutes left in the first.

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Previewing the 2011 Bruins Goaltenders

As last season’s playoffs proved, a hockey team’s success hinges on the quality of its goalie. A good goalie can bail out a poor defense, kill penalties single-handedly and frustrate even the fastest, craftiest shooters. A bad goalie, on the other hand, can take out a team so early in the game that his teammates won’t know what hit them (see 2011 Stanley Cup, Game 6).

Since the position is so crucial, and with the Bruins’ training camp just underway, let’s look at the Bruins’ goaltenders for the upcoming season:

Tim Thomas

Bruins fans could not ask for a better starting goaltender this season than Tim Thomas, who in 2010-11 won the Roger Crozier Saving Grace Award, the Vezina Trophy, the Conn Smythe Trophy and the Stanley Cup. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

Tim Thomas had the kind of 2010-11 season that goaltenders dream about. He set an NHL single-season record with a .938 save percentage (for which he won the Roger Crozier Saving Grace Award) that, combined with a 35-11-9 record and 2.00 GAA, won him his second Vezina Trophy (best goaltender in the league). In the playoffs, he performed even better, posting a .940 save percentage and a 1.98 GAA en route to winning the Conn Smythe Trophy (playoffs MVP) and the Stanley Cup. No goalie had ever before won those four trophies in the same season.

Thomas’ greatest strength is his self-awareness. There are may different ways to play the position, and Thomas has figured out his own strengths and weaknesses enough that he can maximize his effectiveness in goal. His reaction time isn’t quite as fast as younger goalies’ (he’s 37), so instead he comes out of the crease a bit earlier and uses his bulk (he weighs 201 pounds) to cut off shooting angles. When a player gets too close, Thomas comes out and attacks the shooter, not the puck. The Canucks’ Henrik Sedin got a taste of that strategy in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup.

Thomas’s working-class roots and everyman demeanor make him the kind of Boston athlete fans identify with and love. He has unshakable confidence in his abilities to guard the net, and when he has to, he has proven he can carry the Bruins to victory.

It’s unlikely Thomas will repeat the accomplishments of last season, considering how many factors are beyond his control. More shots on goal will likely lower his save percentage, while better offensive play in the playoffs might cost him the Conn Smythe. Nonetheless, Bruins fans can’t ask for anyone better to start in goal next season. There is no one better than Thomas.

Tuukka Rask

Tuukka Rask had an excellent rookie year in 2009, winning 22 of the 45 games he played (39 starts) while posting a 1.97 GAA. In the playoffs, however, Rask was noticeably less effective. His GAA jumped to 2.67 and his save percentage dropped nearly 20 points. In the four consecutive losses of the Bruins’ historic 2009 collapse against the Flyers, Rask allowed a combined 15 goals.

Rask has yet to fully recover from that collapse, and he went 11-14-2, posted a .918 save percentage and again allowed 2.67 goals per game last season. His 2010-11 season was poor enough that there was never a debate over who the Bruins should start in goal.

The Bruins don’t need much out of Rask, but Thomas won’t start all 82 games: In his last four seasons, he’s never started more than 55 (about two-thirds of a season). After starting all 25 of the Bruins’ playoff games, Thomas will be that much more in need of rest during the regular season. Rask has to step up this year, or the Bruins may turn to…

Anton Khubodin

The Bruins traded for Anton Khubodin from the Minnesota Wild back in February, then assigned him to the Providence Bruins. In 16 games with Providence last season, Khubodin went 9-4-1 with a .913 save percentage and a 2.40 GAA.

It’s unlikely Khubodin will make the NHL squad out of the gate this season, instead returning to Providence and the AHL, the league Khubodin has played in for most of his U.S. career. Khubodin has only played in six NHL games ever, going 4-1 in four starts with a 1.39 GAA and a .955 save percentage in limited action (just 134 shots against).

Khubodin gives the Bruins another option at backup, but little else. He doesn’t have the experience to be the primary goalie for an NHL team. If Rask can’t regain his 2009 form, however, the Bruins may give Khubodin a spot-start here and there. Doing so will slowly give Khubodin more experience, let him learn watching one of the best goalies in the league, and possibly raise his trade value.

If Thomas gets hurt, Rask will be the replacement. But if Rask can’t get the job done, Khubodin might get a shot.